Sunday, February 01, 2009

A word on slumdog.

I just came back from a dinner with a friend who had extremely strong views against the movie. I was not surprised. None of the people I interact seem to like this movie, except for my American cousin who thinks it is great. Universally derided, more so for the cluster of BAFTA and Oscar nominations that it has garnered. Does it really deserve the accolades that it has been showered with? I think the unanimous answer is no, it doesn't. Does it matter? Not to me.
The Oscars or the BAFTA have never been a good adjucator of excellence. At best, they are a judge of popularity. But considering this is one of the very few India-themed movies that make it up on the popularity charts of western world, it is bit of a concern that it peddles an unrealistic and half-baked image of India to the imagination of the world. Valid point and a lot of people have opined on this aspect.

My friend from the dinner was particularly miffed at the sudden development of American accent in all the main characters as they grew up in the movie. While the accent of Jamal could be possibly explained as something he picked up at the call centre but what about the rest?
I really think that the reason for this was quite deliberate. The Indian accent is not a very well received one in the US. Any character with an Indian accent in the American mass media is depicted negatively, quite often as a comical character. The American audience is tuned to laugh whenever they hear the Indian accent. It is very similar to how they use German accent to signify villainy.
'Heroes' is a very strong example for me. There is one recurring Indian character in the series who is supposed to have been brought up in India but speaks with an American accent. Also, when he converses with his family, he speaks to them in (accented) English and as weird it might seem, they (his father and mother) also speak English with an American accent. There are Japanese characters in the series who speak with a pronounced Japanese accent. Which is why I think the choice of the accent in the series is very calculated and deliberate. Hollywood has deemed that it cannot portray a positive, intelligent character with an Indian accent. If they do, they might lose some easy ways to get laughs. I remember making this point in the comments of some American blog that deals with issues of race but was completely ignored.
This negative connotation of the Indian accent is the reason why, in spite of the obvious and somewhat grating dissonance with reality, the grown up characters of Jamal, Latika and Jamal's brother speak with an American accent. For me, this shows that Hollywood is well aware of the stereotypes it creates and knows how well to use them. It is a Hollywood film made for the American audience, and I guess we should look at it as such. It provides no insight into India besides reiterating the conception of the country as the land of the Taj Mahal and poverty. There is a lot of injustice in this country - class, caste, religion, etc and this movie deals with none of them.

PS. Another film that can be analysed similarly is "Valkyrie". I haven't seen it but from the trailer one can see that all the guys who are depicted as plotting the assassination of Hitler have British or American accents, even though the characters are German...

UPDATE: Russell Peters makes it so obvious...


grishma said...

I too have been hearing extremely strong views against the movie except from few friends in U.S. and, I'm surprized coz i actually liked the movie. Though must add, I watched slumdog crorepati as in the hindi version so, wouldn't know about the accent thing. But, tell me this, what apart from the accent did you hate?

ADi said...

I enjoyed the movie a lot. I think bollywood should learn how to make a good masala movie from slumdog. There was a slight british accent (not american) and it was a bit jarring, but not a deal breaker.

This was a rags to riches 'fantasy' not a documentary on India. It involved a certain level of suspension of disbelief. And whatever the movie depicted, whether it was poverty or call centers, was a dramatized version of reality. Really, if you have that much time and energy to spare, better spend it improving the actual situation on the ground rather than shout yourself hoarse criticizing Danny Boyle!

If it wins the Oscar for best movie, I would say it would be one of the weaker movies to do so in recent years.

Madhat said...

I did not really hate the movie. I just do not think it was good enough. And oh, I will like to kill the cameraman for his shoddy work.

@Adi: Of course, it is not a documentary on India. And yes, it is a masala movie, a good one too. I am not arguing with that. It is just the way the film has been marketed as a snapshot of India. Although, I am not with the "India is not all about Dharavi and Taj Mahal" gang because I think it does not go dirty enough and still too sugary, but I do not expect it. And I am cool with the whole suspension of disbelief experience. :P
And my point about the accent was an observation and not a disgruntled, bitter critique. I do not expect anything better than that from them.

kuffir said...

like this post. a more thorough review would have been good too.

i'd like to know how the poor in the movie were depicted- silly and delusional as in 'monsoon wedding', or disgruntled, strange and slightly sinister as in 'fire'. old hindi films had their own cultural stereotypes but, i have come to see, the new multi-plex films too exhibit the same kind of distance or speculation, as mainstream hollywood on india and other third-worldian countries, about how this section of india lives.

grishma said...

@adi agree with u except for the oscar bit (coz no clue what all movies have got oscars)

@madhat yea, didn't like when the camera was being unnecessarily shaken.

But, one thing, I'm surprized nobody is saying anything about this. What about the narrative? it had atleast 3 parallel running narratives not something one expects in a masala film and, yet the film manages to hold u like a good masala flick. I was just very pleased at how they managed to pull that off. [I except ppl to experiment so much with narrative style only in parallel/non masala films which usually require atleast a bit of an effort from viewer to follow/understand unlike a no-brainer masala flick that this was]

Madhat said...

@kuffir: This is not a review. Just an observation about the movie. Personally, I did not think the movie was anything more than a mishmash of 'Salaam! Bombay' and the normal Bollywood masala movie. I thought the idea of tying the answers to the life story was a nice plot element but the execution was quite lame and cliched.
I liked what Peter Forster said about the movie:

It is one of the most irritating fallacies of Western visitors to India that poverty - in the villages or the slums - is somehow 'cheerful'. It is not. And this film, however well-meaning, will help only to perpetuate that cosy, convenient little myth. (There's an excellent article and discussion here on the BBC website about the movie.)

The Western misapprehension about the truth of poverty is understandable. Westerners come to India, see the poor children in their rags and - imagining how they or their children would feel in a similar situation - are amazed to find that the underlings aren't sitting around weeping all day long.

@grishma: what are you talking about? I thought there was just one narrative and one perspective, that of Jamal.

kuffir said...


i understand it isn't a review but why shouldn't it be?:) what i meant was i wish you had more observations to make.

i like foster's post too, thanks. but whatever i've read of white tiger only tells me that it, again, treats the poor as some 'different kind of species'. but i haven't read the book and i might some day.

grishma said...

@madhat narratives in terms of timelines: police station discussion parallel to kbc show parallel to jamal's life .... though perhaps credit for this goes more to the book Q & A but, i'm sure translating this to film couldn't have been straightforward at all. And, while most of the time it seems to be Jamal's perspective there are exceptions for instance, jamal can't know of the conversations in recording room when he is on the show.

Madhat said...

Kuffir, I just did not have anything new to say or rather, I really am not interested in expending my energy on this movie. Why don't you watch the movie and tell me what you thought. Perhaps, we can discuss it sometime...

Grishma, I see what you mean. But considering that this is a Hollywood movie where this back and forth in time thingie is a fad right now, I do not see the surprise..

Anonymous said...

Hi - where is it being marketed as a snapshot into India? In India? Then that's unfortunate. In the US, it isn't. It's advertised as a rags to riches love story which it is. And the Americans who like it have responded to exactly that - for once I'm not hearing about the "colours and diversity" like they gush about in a Mira Nair movie. They love the story, the pace, and yes, the masala.
I don't think Boyle had any intention of critiquing the country. I have an inherent problem with people judging it based on it being made by a foreigner. But I am in the minority so I have decided to accept it. If the movie made me squirm or kept reminding me that this was made by an outsider and felt inauthentic, then I'd agree. But as a Mumbaikar, it didn't. And I don't expect any filmmaker, much less a foreign one to make a balanced, all encompassing movie - creative arts seldom work like that. And in that lies its beauty and outlet for constructive (hopefully) discussion.
I agree the accents, actually the English itself was distracting. But what held me was the movie itself, cliches notwithstanding which carried its own and was honest in its agenda from the start - more than what I can say for most Bollywood and Hollywood movies.

Anonymous said...

On a side note, Madhat - I want to upload the Final Solutions doc that you have on your blog, on mine. Can't find the thing in entirety on YT like you have here. How should I do it? Can I just download the video and then upload? Please let me know. Thanks for your help.

Madhat said...

@girlonthebridge: From Roger Ebert's review: The film's universal appeal will present the real India to millions of moviegoers for the first time.
He goes on to elaborate more on that. Perhaps, the film is not marketed as a look into India but it is seen as such and the film's publicists have not done anything to dispel this notion.

I have an inherent problem with people judging it based on it being made by a foreigner.
You are judging my critical perspective as being based on the fact that it was made by a foreigner?

As I said before, I wasn't expecting a documentary on Mumbai. Certainly not in a commercial movie.
I think you have jumped to a lot of pre-conceived notions about my disagreement with the film.

Regarding Final Solutions, the video is here. You can find the embed code on the side.

Anonymous said...

Madhat, apolgies. When I said I have a problem with who judge it based on it being made my a foreigner I wasn't talking about you. I was adding to the list of things you talked about that are upsetting people...many i talk to are outraged that he made it at all - sometimes before they watch the movie, which I think is a lopsided way to critique a creative work.

About the review - one man's opinion. Maybe the NYT would be more along what you'd think "In the end, what gives me reluctant pause about this bright, cheery, hard-to-resist movie is that its joyfulness feels more like a filmmaker’s calculation than an honest cry from the heart about the human spirit (or, better yet, a moral tale)....He plucked my heartstrings in “Slumdog Millionaire” with well-practiced dexterity, coaxing laughter and sobs out of each sweet, sour and false note"
I doubt a publicist's job is to correct every reviewer's opinion - if anything they see reviews in black and white. A good review is good, no matter what the opinion. Theirs is the job of getting butts in seats, not so noble to debate with Roger Ebert :)
Lastly, research from Nielsen shows reviews rank lowest along with advertising in proving a meaningful information source to movie-watchers...way below trailers and word-of-mouth (see slide 1). So reviews as meaningful as they are as critique, I am getting the sense are not as influential as they used to be.
Of course if people are angry when they see the film, that is a valid opinion - just not one I share.

Thanks for the code, if i have tech challenges, I might bug you again!

Madhat said...

Thanks for the pdf. That is very interesting.
I guess one can argue that reviews are not that important for a flim's success. But can we argue that people would agree to the general viewpoint prevalent in most reviews about a particular film?

Vibhanshu said...

I agree with the fact that the movie is over-hyped. There are much better movie on India and by Indians. But, from a foreign audience perspective the movie is well done [foreign: not mine but others around me ;) ]

I am not sure whether the accent is deliberate or not, but I don't see anything wrong in the accent. Two reasons
1. The movie was made clearly made for international audiences and whatever gets the message to them, is better.
2. I come across so many people at school and I think I can generalize to say that 2nd generation Indians have very strong American accents, but not so for 2nd or even 3rd gen Chinese, Japanese, Italian etc. And I can definitely say that the strong Indian accent is not associated with ignorance/stupidity except in some teen flick.

I would like to reiterate that I don't think the movie is great. Though I like the editing, the photography and the camera work. The music is OK and the script is very average.

It is a story for a non Indian audience. They want something different, something thats alien to them and thats why the movie is so popular. There were some terrific movies in the last year which didn't win anything. Gran Torino was one of them, I have not seen such great acting in any movie this year. Wrestler was good too. But thats not magic for the American audience, hence the lack of appreciation.

For all it matters, it is not a commentary on India and it is not perceived as such here. I don't understand why people are making such a big fuss about it [not you in particular :-) ]. If you don't like it don't watch it. How many people go on cribbing about a Shilpa Shetty movie?

I am ambivalent to all the Oscars the movie got, except one where I think it really deserved it but on the whole from my perspective its just another movie. So lets give it a breather and let the crew enjoy their day of glory :D Why should the Indian audience even care about this movie?

BTW why is no one talking about Pinky?

Madhat said...

1. The movie was made clearly made for international audiences and whatever gets the message to them, is better.

That argument does not really work because all other adult characters - Irrfan Khan, Anil Kapoor, etc have an Indian accent. Also, in the first half, most of the characters speak in Hindi with English subtitles! Are you saying that in these parts, the western audience did not get the message?

And I can definitely say that the strong Indian accent is not associated with ignorance/stupidity except in some teen flick.

Even though I do not know much about what Americans think, I will disagree with that statement. Accents are used very often in American media to denote specific stereotypes. Whether it is Mencia or John Stewart or any of the umpteen TV shows that feature Indians, Indian accent is used as a funny prop like a rubber duck. Of course, what is shown in media is not really reflective of Americans themselves but is reflective of the media biases which can be pretty influential.

If you don't like it don't watch it.

ah, how would I know I will not like it if I do not watch it? :)

And I would actually would like to see Pinky..

Anonymous said...

I guess elder jamal's strong English accent is because he is English ( has lived all his life in London). As may have other characters who speak with an accent. I am not too sure that this was done deliberately.


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